Report from Wisconsin: This is What Democracy Looks Like

Feb 26, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

wisconsinA ground report from a historic movement to fight Scott Walker's bill and reignite justice for the middle class.

JUSTICE -- GOVERNMENT -- LEGISLATION -- LIBERTY. Choose the order in which to recite them. Those are themes of the four murals that adorn the Capitol Rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin and surround the throngs of citizens who have gathered for many days now to protest and, we hope, block passage of the anti-labor, indeed, anti-democratic Budget Repair Bill proposed by Governor Scott Walker. It's a bill that not only slashes public workers' incomes, but also strips them/us of their/our democratic rights to bargain collectively.

On Friday my wife Lorna and I decided, quite suddenly, to go down to Madison. We made the 300-mile round-trip drive on Friday to help bolster our fellow citizens on the eve of the big events on Saturday; to register our anger at the Republican-dominated Assembly's shameful passage of the bill (the Republican-dominated Senate remains "filibustered" with Senate Democrats holding out in Illinois); and to renew our own spirits in the face of the media's inadequate coverage and misrepresentation of what is at stake.

Arriving mid-afternoon, we went straight to the "unionized" Concourse Hotel, where Wisconsin's labor organizations have their "war rooms" set up. There we got caught up on developments and picked up "WI red" AFL-CIO signs bearing a blue map of the state in the shape of a fist and the words STAND WITH WISCONSIN. Informed and equipped, we headed up to the Capitol.

It was a chilly 20-degree afternoon, but it was bright outside and one had the sense that the state's motto "FORWARD!" still mattered. Police officers, drawn from cities and towns around the state, guarded entrances and patrolled counter-clockwise to the marchers. But they too were smiling, at least for now. In fact, to show their solidarity with the protesters, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association responded to reports that the governor's office was planning to close the Capitol that night and clear sleeping protesters from its halls by announcing that some of its own union brothers and sisters were going to sleep in the building along with them. (As one of my colleagues, Steve Cupery, put it hopefully: "Oh, oh, the cops are coming to Madison for a sleepover. Does this mean they are in bed with the demonstrators?")

After one full circle, we went into the Capitol building. It's a gorgeous place, not unlike the Capitol in DC. And it was made all the more gorgeous and welcoming by the presence of the hundreds, no thousands, of our fellow citizens occupying nearly every corner of the place. Posters adorned the walls and banisters, and noise -- the good noise of citizens' voices and young drummers -- reverberated throughout. And yet somehow everything remained "Wisconsin clean."

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Moving with others into the Rotunda area, beneath the great dome, I could not help but look up and around, and what I saw and heard made me tearful, joyfully so: throngs of people, the four murals above, the many signs that read "Beam Scotty Up," "Scott Walker is a Weasel, Not a Badger," "Forward! Never Backwards!," "The People Own this BLDG, the Kochs Own Walker," "I'm Sorry if My Rights are an Inconvenience for You," and "Stop the Class War Against Workers!," and the banners of diverse Wisconsin unions.

At the center of it all was the "People's Microphone" (smartly managed by a group of young people whom I assumed were members of UW-Madison's Graduate Assistants Union). There, one-by-one, people young and old spoke: students, Wisconsin unionists, and labor delegations from around the USA. Teenagers spoke in support of their teachers and parents. Workers of every trade decried the Republicans' so-called Budget Repair Bill and the corruption of democracy by billionaires such as the Koch Brothers; recounted how their own parents and grandparents struggled to organize unions and secure their democratic rights; and declared their determination. Folks from New York, Florida, Michigan, and points west registered their own unions' solidarity with Wisconsin.

Each little speech garnered rousing cheers -- and regularly everyone broke into "Kill the bill!" But just as regularly, and just as enthusiastically and tunefully, we all sang out with "This is what Democracy looks like!" accompanied by young drummers beating out the rhythm on large white plastic containers.

Voices never spoke hatefully. But they expressed outrage -- an outrage built up over thirty years in which the rich have become extraordinarily richer and working people poorer, in which livelihoods and industries have been destroyed and jobs exported, in which the public good and public infrastructure have been squandered. And they expressed outrage that the corporate elite, conservative politicians and pundits, and even other middle class folk of the Tea Party sort were now eager to not only cut the wages of public workers, but also savage democratic rights and the progressive services we have helped to create.

The democratic spirit and energy -- that's what brought me to tears. Here in Madison, Wisconsin, here in the heart of the state, here in America's heartland, working people in all their diversity were once again coming together in solidarity. It has been in the making for thirty years and more. Sadly it did not arise sooner. But that is history -- a history not to forget and a history from which to learn -- but, nonetheless, history. Now we have the making of a democratic surge. "This is what democracy looks like," I thought. Liberty -- Government -- Legislation -- Justice. Forward!

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. A member of the National Writers Union/UAW, he is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

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